The Business Rusch: Beginning Writers (Changing Times Part 16)

Business Rusch free nonfiction On Writing

The Business Rusch: Beginning Writers

(Changing Times Part Sixteen)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I have done everything I could possibly do to avoid writing this post.  I wrote extra long on the novel today, cooked a more elaborate dinner than usual, did the dishes, and even paid one entire month’s worth of bills—including things that won’t be due for weeks—just to keep away from my office.

Now, about an hour before my brain officially clocks out for the evening, I am sitting in my office, wondering if I should organize my library—all 10,000 volumes of it.  Yep, I’m a living example of avoidance tactics.

Why? Because seventeen weeks ago, when I started this mini-series on publishing, I deliberately placed the section on beginning writers at the end.  I figured by the time I got to that section, I would know exactly what to say.

As you can tell from my behavior, outlined above, I don’t.  Not exactly.  In fact, I’ve been discussing this particular topic with professional writers who are savvy about the changing publishing world all throughout January. At our weekly professional writers’ lunch on Sunday, we discussed the impact of the changes on the way that beginning writers should behave, sometimes with raised voices.

Honestly, none of us have good solutions.  The change is too swift.

Last October, I would have given this advice: beginning writers should market their unpublished book for two or three years in the traditional publishing arena before turning to self-publishing.  My husband, Dean Wesley Smith, would have told beginning writers to self publish and to make a print-on-demand book, which they should then market instead of a manuscript.  He believed that editors would find the bound book more attractive.  I didn’t agree at the time.

Dean’s opinion has remained relatively unchanged.  Mine has gone through iteration after iteration. Somewhere in December, I decided he was right.  But as the new year has progressed, I’m beginning to wonder if he’s too conservative.

Okay, here’s the disclaimer: If you’re new to this blog—particularly if you’re a beginning writer—please reread the previous fifteen posts.  The important ones include the overall overview post, the overview post on writers, and the posts on Big Publishing.  If you don’t understand how the publishing industry works (and believe me, most established writers don’t, so I don’t expect beginners to), then what I am about to say will make no sense.

The paths are pretty clear for bestselling writers and midlist writers. Even though I wrote my first post on bestselling writers two months ago, I stand by my statements then.  Big Publishing is set up to handle huge numbers.  If you want a one-day lay down of a million copies of a single hardcover book  across the United States, the only way to do that is through Big Publishing.

Big Publishing does bestsellers better than anyone else can, especially repeat bestsellers.  If you have hit the list once through Big Publishing, then they know how to ensure that you will do so again with your next book, provided that said book is similar to the first.  Got that?

Established midlist writers may decide to stick with Big Publishing as well, not just for the opportunity at a bestseller, but for a wide lay down and promotion outside the easily available channels.  But established midlist writers probably have backlist titles with a built-in audience that can be self-published to take advantage of both sides of the marketplace.

As I mentioned in the posts on midlist writers, established midlist writers are best suited to take advantage of this new publishing world.

Beginners, though.  I’m not sure where beginners stand.

Big Publishing has figured out that the emerging e-publishing markets are going to be huge.  Despite what the gloom and doomers say, Big Publishing will not disappear.  (See my earlier posts on this before arguing with me, please.)  There will be some visible bumps as Big Publishing adapts to this new world, but Big Publishing as a whole will survive and will probably become healthier because of the changes.

We’re already seeing the indications.  Book covers, which take a year to produce, have moved to large imagery and big words, things that look good at the postage-stamp size needed for e-books.  Book contracts are changing in dramatic ways.  Now publishers want world rights instead of North American publication rights as a matter of course, and that makes tremendously good business sense for the publisher.  It’s getting harder and harder to separate out e-rights throughout the worldwide market.  Amazon and Apple, for example, make publishers opt out of the worldwide English language market, which seems easy but usually takes two or three requests to achieve.

And if you don’t think that’s important, realize that most educated people in other countries speak and read English as a second language.  For example, my English language sales in the parts of Europe where English is not the official language are nearly as high as my sales in England itself.  Publishers want to take advantage of those markets because it’s so easy to do now.

(If you don’t understand what I’m talking about with rights—which is what writers sell [writers do not sell manuscripts or stories, they sell the right to use those stories in particular ways]—get thee a copy of The Copyright Handbook immediately.  Do not pass go. Do not read any farther. Click on the link, order, and then come back to this blog.)

Also, in the past two years, Big Publishing has—as a group—decided that an author’s refusal to sell e-rights is, for the most part, a deal-breaker.  I’m sure that James Patterson or Janet Evanovich could probably negotiate to keep those rights, but those of us without bestseller clout no longer can.  Until early 2009, I could have kept e-rights to all of the novels I sold to New York publishers.  I did not keep those rights on several because, quite frankly, I saw no point to keeping them.  Publishers were the only ones attempting e-book publication in the early years of this century, and I simply saw it as another revenue stream.

Besides, the e-rights clauses in traditional publishing contracts were, by today’s standards, unbelievably generous.  They were 50% of the gross sales.  You can’t get something that good from traditional publishers now.  Traditional publishers want to pay writers 25% of net or 15% of gross.  I’ve seen amounts even smaller than that.  And, when compared with the 30% to 70% of gross that a writer can get on her own for e-rights, those amounts offered by Big Publishing in their contracts are laughably small.

Out-of-print clauses are becoming draconian as well.  Up until two years ago, e-publication did  not count as being “in print.”  Only paper copies did.  So a book that was selling well on Kindle but had no paper copies could be deemed out of print under its contract.

No publisher would agree to that deal today.

And finally, advances have gotten terribly small, especially for beginners.  In the past, it was unusual to hear of a beginning writer with a reputable agent getting $1500 as an advance for a  novel.  Now I hear about deals –or potential deals—like this every week.  And the royalty rates are smaller, and some companies even base those royalty rates on net sales rather than a percentage of the cover price, so it’ll take a lot longer than expected to earn out even a small advance.

Even the beginning writers who are getting good advances aren’t getting the best deals.  I know a number of brand-new YA authors who got $25,000 advances on their first novels, which is a wonderful advance for a new writer. But that advance was for a single book, where in the past, an author—even (especially) a beginner—would have received a multibook contract.  Now publishers wait until they see how that first book does before signing the author to a second one-book contract.

So any writer who is attempting to build a career must wait two years from sale for the book to come out, and another six months after that to see accurate sales figures, before their publisher will even consider offering on a second book.  That makes four to five years between an author’s first book and his second.

And that’s just plain ridiculous.

The few beginning writers I know who received multi-book contracts are often receiving terrible terms, terms that—even with a good agent or a strong IP lawyer on the writer’s side—are dealbreakers.  Everything from the rights and out-of-print clauses I mentioned above to limitations on the use of the author’s name on other works  and basket accounting (lumping all of the books under one contract into a single accounting system as if those books are one book—and no, I’m not going to elaborate.  I just tried and it took 500 words, and that’s a side road which I’m not going to walk at the moment) have become standard dealbreakers in new writer contracts.

Before you all start screaming about how unfair traditional publishing is and how terrible it is that writers get screwed all the time, let me clarify a few things.  First, writers generally get screwed because writers don’t understand what they’re signing.  Writers are, as a class, ignorant of the business and that ignorance hurts them a lot more than any publisher ever could.  No one forces a writer to sign a bad contract. The writer makes that choice all by himself.

Second, publishing contracts are a negotiation of the terms of a business agreement.  Remember our set-up from previous posts.  Traditional publishing models—which was, really, the only model until a few years ago—go like this:

Writers provide content (product) to Publishers.

Publishers distribute that content to Distributors.

Distributors distribute the content (books) to Bookstores.

Bookstores distribute that content to Readers.

Until 2009 or so, the only way for a writer to get his content to the biggest number of readers was to go through a traditional publisher. The contract terms defined how that content would get published, at what level it would go to the distributors, and how many readers it would (probably) reach. There are systems in a traditional publishing contract that pay the writer more if the book sells better than expected.  And, in the past, if the book sold worse than expected, that book went out of print and the writer could get his rights to that book back.

It costs Big Publishing anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000 per title to send a book by a beginning writer into this system. So in the contract negotiation, the Big Publisher wants to ensure that the company will get a suitable return on its investment. After all, Big Publishing is investing this money before publication, and won’t receive its first payment on that money until 90 days after publication.  That’s a lot of float.  Imagine if you had to spend $250,000 today in the hopes of making a 4% profit on that $250,000 five years from now.  Would you do it? Not many of us would.  Yet publishers do so all the time.

Beginning writers have always gotten the worst contract terms in the business because beginning writers are an unproven commodity.  Most beginning writers don’t earn any money for the company. Those writers are a gamble that often fails.

Why then do publishing companies continue to buy from beginners? In the hopes that those beginners will become a strong seller.  In the past, the publishers hoped that the beginners would become a reliable midlist author, but in the last ten years, the publishers decided they wanted beginners to turn into New York Times bestsellers. That’s just not possible: it’s like trying to win the lottery with every single lottery ticket you buy.  It’s a failing strategy, and the Big Publishers knew that. They just didn’t know how to get out of that strategy with the belt-tightening from the distribution collapse in the late 1990s (don’t know what that is? I mention it in the Big Publishing posts I’ve already pointed to), with the loss of the independent booksellers, and with the recession.

Big Publishers coped by those single book contracts and  the bad-for-the-author multibook contracts I mentioned above.  But that strategy was failing, and the Big Publishers knew it.  They no longer had the budget to build beginning writers into solid midlist writers, and, it seemed, Big Publishers forgot that solid midlist writers often became bestsellers, given enough years and enough books.

Enter e-books.  Suddenly the Big Publisher could invest in a beginning writer. If that writer’s first novel failed, then the Big Publisher could discontinue the expensive paper edition of the book and keep the e-book in print forever, eventually repaying that $250,000 loss that was already on the books.

From Big Publishing’s point of view, that change is a godsend.  It means that Big Publishing—with the proper contract—can develop new writers into midlist writers again. Big Publishers can take more risks than they used to, and they can once again hope to get a good return on their money.

But it’s not a good deal for the writer, especially if the writer is a slow writer.  Because here’s the reality of the contractual changes that are occurring at all levels of the business:

Once a book sells into Big Publishing, that book will remain in the Big Publishing system for decades.  Writers will no longer be able to reclaim their backlist the way that midlist writers have done for generations.  Once a book sells into traditional publishing, it will remain a part of traditional publishing.  Which means that, eventually, the writer will earn out his advance, and will make $10, $20 or $30 extra dollars per year on that book. Because, remember, e-publishing clauses in those contracts offer only tiny royalties now, and those royalties are getting smaller, not larger.

This is a disaster for the slow writer.  Because that writer will  never make a living at writing.  In the past, the slow writer retained foreign rights as well as audio rights and other auxiliary rights to his novel.  If the novel was well received, then the writer would make money selling that book to other countries, even if the book went out of print in the United States.  The auxiliary rights often kept the slow writer alive as he wrote his next book.

Plus he probably had a solid multi-book contract from his publisher that guaranteed the slow writer would earn $5,000 to $10,000 in the two years while he wrote the next book. Combine that with the foreign rights sales, and the writer earned a small living–$15,000 to $25,000 per year.

Now let’s be kind to that same slow writer.  He sold his first book for $25,000, but that sale was for world rights.  He will receive all of his money by the time the book is published, and will not even be eligible to get an offer on the next book for another six months.  The money from any foreign sales will go against his advance instead of into his pocket.  Even if he sells his next book for the same $25,000, he will have two or three years in there with no writing income at all.

If our slow writer sold a multibook contract, he’s probably only earning $5000 to $10,000 per book, and again, without the foreign sales or the auxiliary rights, that’s all his earning. There’s no chance this writer can quit his day job.

The writer’s only chance is to have his book do better than expected.  However, some multibook contracts I’ve seen that have been negotiated by young agents (those who came into the business in the last ten years) are so badly done that the advance is the only money the writer will ever see on that book even if the book becomes a New York Times bestseller. Is that the agent’s fault? I suppose you could blame her. But seriously, that’s the writer’s issue.  First, the writer signed that P.o.S. contract, and second—and more importantly—the writer hired that crap-ass agent in the first place.  By the way, all of these terrible contracts that I’ve seen have come through established agencies, so even if the agent works for a reputable firm that’s no guarantee the agent will do a good job on the contract.

In other words, having an agent—even one in a reputable firm—is not a guarantee that a beginning writer (or any writer for that matter)—will get good contract terms.  And, to be fair, good contract terms are becoming harder and harder to get.

From the publisher’s point of view, it makes sense to sign the writer to a hard-to-break long term contract, and to wrap up as many rights as possible.  In a changing world, it’s better to negotiate for everything than find yourself with nothing.

That’s what happened to publishers with established midlist writers.  Publishers found themselves with nothing. Established midlist authors like me got contract terms in the 1980s, 1990s, and the early part of this century that enable us to get out of those contracts easily, that now put our backlist into our own hands.  Publishers realize they’ve lost this gold mine. They even sued to try to hang onto that gold mine, trying to define terms in contracts that predate the electronic revolution to include electronic books. Those suits failed repeatedly in court.

Publishers are very well aware of what they’ve lost, and like any good businessperson, they want to ensure they don’t make that same mistake again. So they’re buying up everything they can for as little money as possible. And they’re being harsh about it. Right now, they know that for every writer who turns down a publishing deal, another writer waits in the wings.

Everyone who isn’t a bestseller and signs a book contract with traditional publishers these days is paying for this change.  If the writer goes into a traditional publishing deal with eyes wide open, looking at the deal as a partnership to get the book into traditional outlets, then that deal is just fine.  Especially if the writer realizes that the book is probably never going to be declared out of print.

Some midlist writers will have enough clout or enough savvy to negate the worst of the new contract terms.  But most writers won’t. And beginners who are notoriously naïve and terribly desperate to get their first publishing deal often don’t negotiate their first contract at all.

Therein lies disaster, but it’s a disaster that has existed since the first publishing contract was drawn up.  Beginners usually get screwed, badly.  That’s just the way of things.

But that way is starting to change, and not just within traditional publishing.  There are whole new ways to get screwed in the world of print-on-demand and e-publishing.  And I will deal with some of that next week.

Since many of you will want to know where I’m going with all of this, let me give you a rough outline of the next few posts, all of which will focus on new writers.  I’m going to deal with the new alternatives to traditional publishing.  I’m also going to deal with the scams and the pitfalls in new publishing as well as traditional publishing.  I’m going to explain which type of new writer will thrive in the modern publishing environment and which type of new writer will get eaten alive.

As my well-published friends pointed out on Sunday, a subset of new writers have always gotten eaten alive in publishing.  In the past, it was a predictable subset.  My well-published friends believe it will be a different subset who will get eaten alive in this new publishing environment.

I don’t want anyone to get eaten alive. (I’m so nice that way.) So I’ll put out ways to avoid getting hurt in the hopes that I can save a few of you from getting your dreams crushed.

Because the flip side of this is that a whole new subset of new writer will thrive in this publishing environment, a subset that was virtually shut out of traditional publishing in the past.

And now—as in the past—the writers who will survive through all of the ups and downs of publishing are the writers who understand the business of publishing. So if you’re a new writer who doesn’t like business, get over that aversion now or prepare to have a day job for the rest of your life.   Study up, my friends.  Because, to paraphrase Bette Davis in All About Eve, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

A number of you have been waiting for the beginning writer posts and as with all of the other posts, I’m going to take on this topic in parts.  Your comments, e-mails, and donations will keep me writing this, even though I would rather be cleaning the cat box.  (Actually, I’d rather be reading, but that’s another story.) So thank you for all the good thoughts, and see you next week.

61 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Beginning Writers (Changing Times Part 16)

  1. Seems like new writers should look at Big Publishing as more of a personal advertising vehicle than anything else. You aren’t going to retire on the books you send to Big Publishing; you might not even make a living on them. But they *will* get your name out in front of people, at which point they’ll look at your website and see all the self-published stuff you have available.

    Which, of course, implies that publishers will write their contracts such that you assign the rights to characters/settings/etc. to them, sort of like Frey is doing. The writer will not be able to re-use those characters, or tell stories in that setting, outside of their contractually-obligated works. This is the “keep hold of your characters!” that comic-book writers are always talking about, and–like reprint rights, like electronic rights, like international rights–it’s somewhere else that Big Publishing has recognized goldmine potential.

    So what we might see, for a future new-writer business arc, is…

    *Big Publishing says “hey, we’d like you to write a story in World Of Tanks, we’ll pay you some-number of dollars.”
    *Writer does it. Meanwhile, writer has their own setting, Dog’s Quest, that they’re happily writing stories in.
    *Writer writes the fourteenth World Of Tanks novel, it’s a huge success. Everyone sees this writer’s name, goes to their website, and orders the Dog’s Quest books. Everybody wins, although some people are a bit disappointed that World Of Tanks #15 (by a different writer entirely) wasn’t as good as #14.

    1. Unlike comics, writers rarely sell the rights to their characters outside of the published work.

      That’s changing: I’m seeing a lot of publishing contracts that want the characters too (from writers whom I advise), but if the writers stick to their guns and don’t sell those rights, the publishers won’t have that revenue. It’s up to the writers to be good negotiators.

      But your advertising point is a good one.

    1. Well, Rowyn, I’m not done yet. There’s more posts to follow. So hold on.

      Thanks for the perspective, Alexandra. I might steal your line about a self-published book that fails is a single manuscript being rejected. Excellent point.

      Thanks for the update, Dave, and thanks for the mention of crowdfunding, Elizabeth. I suspect a lot of writers will do that on big projects in the future.

      I appreciate the comments and links!

  2. I spent years studying the publishing industry from the outside so I’d know how to deal with it when I went in, and eventually decided that the only winning move was not to play. I think this has only become more true with each passing year since then. It’s interesting to see an “insider” saying some of the same things.

    Heteromeles may be confused on some points, but this much is absolutely true: as an independent, you don’t have to sell nearly as many copies of a book to support yourself as you would to see real money from a big publisher. You can also explore business models that don’t involve selling individual copies of books to individual people.

    The problem that a lot of people have with self-publishing is that they see the failures, and there are a lot of failures. But a self-published book that utterly fails isn’t the equivalent of a publishing house going belly-up, it’s more like a single manuscript being rejected. If we looked at how many manuscripts didn’t get published by a big publishing house vs. how many do and used that as a benchmark for the success of the model, we would have to conclude that big publishing is a failure. But we don’t. We judge the success of the model by looking at its successes.

    Self-publishing is not a guarantee of success, but it’s a potential route to it, and one that can involve a greater gradation of degrees than big publishing. A self-published book can take as long as it needs to find (and be found by) its audience. And the “royalties” the author reaps can approach as high as 95% of its costs.

    (That’s assuming you sell an e-book yourself directly, using PayPal’s microtransaction rate. Copies sold through e-book stores will give a smaller percentage, but are worth pursuing anyway. The more places people can find you the better off you’ll be. Although you have to get people moving towards your book in particular out of a crowded marketplace, and if you can get people aware of your book and looking for it on Amazon, you can get people to go to your own website and buy directly.)

  3. This is fascinating. Thank you for sharing. I study not just traditional publishing but also alternative publishing; a key interest of mine is crowdfunding. So this kind of analysis of changes and options is very valuable.

  4. Here’s a timely update on Amanda Hocking’s numbers, courtesy of her interview with USA Today.

    She sold more than 450,000 books in January (nine titles, and %99 of sales were ebooks).

    How many big-name authors sell half a million books in a month? J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown, to be sure. James Patterson? Nora Roberts? The biggest of the big names, yes. Plus some of Oprah’s picks. But I imagine the ranks of half-million-a-month bestsellers thin considerably after that.


  5. Kris – Thanks for your prompt response to my question about 4% profit margins for publishers.

    I have recently discovered your website and have just begun reading your Series on Publishing (over 50,000 words by my count so far) and have found it extremely helpful. Thanks for all your effort.

  6. Excellent post and very interesting.

    I was discussing your post with a writer friend and he was skeptical about a 4% profit margin for big publishers.

    I did some quick research and discovered that because the major publishers are embedded in giant media conglomerates, it’s not clear what profits the book publishing segments generate.

    Is the 4% number what the publishers use when authors complain about royalties or is there another source for this? I’m not doubting your expertise, simply curious.

    1. Several sources, although none at my fingertips at the moment. It’s repeatedly been reported in Publishers’ Weekly. Also several publishers from the head of Tor to the head of Kensington (smaller Big Publishers who are unrelated) has provided the same information. The head of Kensington did so in a breakdown of book costs in an article for RWA several years ago. Again, don’t have the links and right now, with all my deadlines, don’t have the time to look for them, but that’s an inside industry standard number, and that’s what the profit averages each year per publishing house. (Some books are more profitable, some less–the bestsellers are generally less profitable on a percentage basis because of all of the discounting.)

  7. Kris,

    Oh, I agree. It’s worth comparing the top ebook bestsellers to the top traditional bestsellers.

    Like other top bestsellers, Amanda Hocking has done a lot of things right:

    1. She writes in a popular genre (paranormal romance)
    2. She publishes series of books
    3. Her covers are colorful and interesting, with a branded series look
    4. She’s very prolific

    And since I’m already spamming you with Amanda Hocking links, I might as well add one more. Here’s an interview I did with Amanda Hocking back in July 2010, when she was first getting an idea of how big this ebook thing could be, but before she became the phenom she is today:


    1. Great, Dave. Thank you. I was going to combine all of your posts into one, but decided not to. It’s more fun this way. 🙂

      It’ll be fun to watch the Times list evolve. At some point, it can’t ignore Amanda Hocking. This is exactly what happened when the Times tried to ignore J.K. Rowling. It managed to ignore R.L. Stine. Rowling was too much of a challenge.

      Thank you for all of the links! I promise: they’ll be in good hands in future weeks. 🙂

    1. David, where did you get the information that the NYT won’t include indie writers? The paper lists include indie books if they get high enough. I’m not doubting you. I just want to see the link because it’s important to my future posts. And yes, I’m watching Amanda Hocking closely. I think her experience is very important.

  8. @Livia — The NY Times ebook bestseller list excludes indie authors. Amanda Hocking—currently #4, #10, #12, #24, #36, #41, and #44 on Kindle—is not considered an ebook bestseller by the NY Times.

    Amanda Hocking has sold over half a million ebooks in the past 10 months. Before that, she was unpublished. In December alone she sold more than 180,000 ebooks. She revealed on today that last week alone she sold more than 100,000 ebooks.

    Let me repeat: 100,000 ebooks in one week, from an author who was unpublished a year ago.

    She sells her ebooks at 99 cents and $2.99. Let’s estimate an average royalty of $1 per ebook sold. That’s $100,000 earned in one week.

    And growing. Her existing books are still moving up the charts, and she’s still writing more ebooks.

    Some time this summer, or before, she will join James Patterson, Steig Larsson, and Nora Roberts in the million-book club on Kindle, and may soon surpass them all.

    Traditional publishers are great for bestselling authors.

    But now I’m thinking it might be better, financially, to be the indie bestselling author.

    Even if you don’t get listed by the NY Times.


  9. Wow, a sobering post. Not entirely surprising, since I’ve been trying to pay attention to what kind of deals publishers were offering new writers for a couple of years now. Your observations make me glad that I’ve been pursuing the more traditional approach for SF writers: make a name selling short fiction so that (hopefully) I’ll have a bit more leverage with book deals. Add e-pubbing to that and there’s a natural segue from short to long without having to go through NY at all.

    A story published in say Analog will be seen by some 30,000 people, not bad numbers by beginning writer standards. (And the magazine goes out of print a month after hitting the stands — my e-rights aren’t locked up.) It may be coincidence, but I’ve seen my e-book (really e-story) sales jump since the current issue (which I’m in) hit the stands.

    I still want to sell through New York — as you said, only they can lay down a million books in one day — but I’d like at least a little more leverage than the average new author when I do. (I do realize that “a little” is perhaps the most I can realistically hope for.)

    Thanks again for the post, and the series.

  10. Very interesting post, Kris. I agree with John that a big difficulty for new or unknown writers in the self-pub world is how to stand above the crowd. I definitely agree with the mathematical ramifications on a per book basis of self-pub. I can definitely see it for midlisters and above. I have several friends who were pubbed with Dorchester and when they went all epub, the publisher tried to get the ebook rights they had failed to negotiate previously. These friends refused to sign for the paltry royalties being offered and fought to have rights reverted on future contracted books because they would not be doing any print. ALL of them are making thousands on their self-pubbed ebooks. At least two of them have said they may never work with a publisher again unless the advance is amazing.

    But here’s the catch, like You and Dean they all had established readerships (name recognition) when the did their previous and now new ebooks in self pub. My dilemma is if the time spent promoting, marketing, making my name stand out in the self-pub world (thus diluting writing time) will be made up in dollars earned over smaller royalties with known epub publishers at 35%.

    I don’t have the answer yet. I have an epub contract now with a romantic suspense and I’ve truly enjoyed working with the publishing company and their contract is very reasonable (only a two-year purchase of rights). I’m considering simultaneously self-pubbing a book in a different sub-genre and then watching the numbers.

    It’s definitely a VERY exciting world for writers. I just wish I already knew all the answers. 🙂

    1. Maggie, all of this worry about self promotion is the same thing that beginning writers have done since the dawn of time. It has now moved to the indie realm. I’ll deal with it. But mostly…um…no. Self promotion beyond some limited things is a time waster. A writer is better off writing the next book–either in print or for e-books, for traditional publishers or for self-publishing. I’ll discuss why in future blogs, but the short version is you’re looking at a produce model, which no longer applies for self-publishing. And if you knew all the answers, we’d all pay you to find out what they are. 🙂

      Alastair, yep. Short fiction promotes long fiction. And the magazines are a great advertisement for your novels. It was that way in the print-only days, and it still is. You’ll gain readers who love your work who will then go on to buy everything you do. That’s a great way to promote–and to get paid for doing it. 🙂

  11. Kris,

    I was wondering if you were going to be at the WOTF workshop later this year, because I would love to pick your brains on this. I am just one such new writer. I’ve recently joined SFWA on the back of good short story sales, but I find that where I would reliably get requests for material from agents two years ago, or even last year, this isn’t happening anymore. Agents and publishers have become much more conservative in their buying, and that hurts new writers, too. I’m sure things will pick up once everyone has sorted themselves out, but do I want to wait that long?

    1. I hope to be at the WoTF gathering this year, Patty. And I will be available for brain-picking. And remember–agents don’t buy anything. Stop considering them as a place to market your fiction. Go directly to editors. Worry about agents later, after you’ve made a sale but before you agree to terms.

  12. Good post, Kris. As a beginning writer, I feel like I’m reevaluating my priorities and methods on a monthly basis. I don’t think that will change anytime soon.

    I think I’ll be trying various methods and seeing how they work out. No one knows the answers right now, but the only way to fail for sure is to not try at all. In fact, following Dean’s ideas, I’m going to send a copy of the book I put up last month to a few editors and see how that goes. It can’t hurt me, anyway.

    As I’m planning on new releases on epub, I’m still sending out submission packages to editors. If I do get a deal, I think I’ll be very careful on the contract I sign due to the rapid changes in the market. Mostly, I want to retain the e-rights as much as possible and have clear reversion clauses so if it doesn’t work out, I haven’t lost my book for a long time.

    That another good point about epub. With epub as a fallback plan, I won’t feel like I have to do whatever the publisher asks me to do, just because they could close the gate. Now, even as a beginning writer, I have options.

    And looking forward to being up in Oregon in a few weeks for the workshops!


    1. Thanks, Tom! I think you’re right. The options are there that weren’t there before. Before, a writer often had to act on faith–faith that someone else would be as excited about the book as the author, that if the author walks away from a deal another publisher will want the book, and so on. Now there are choices.

  13. I think we have a failure to communicate, which is at least partially my fault.

    Anyway, here’s how to make a contract last forever: declare that it ends when the book goes out of print, declare that a book stays “in print” as long as it is available on the web, and then never take it off the web. Didn’t you say that’s what the terms in the newer contracts are?

    And yes, I absolutely agree with you about not signing egregious contracts.

    However, if the contracts for new writers are too egregious, publishers are not going to attract new talent. Their existing talent pool will last for some decades, but without new writers, that pool will shrink. Writers aren’t immortal, and publishers need to bring in new writers in order to stay in business.

    Furthermore, the publishers need to keep their existing talent happy, and if an author can get a better contract from Amazon or Apple than they can from their publisher, the publisher loses.

    I’d also point out that currently it is easier, faster, and possibly cheaper to publish something online than it is to submit it to multiple publishers (factor in costs of printing and mailing off manuscripts–it’s pretty close). Right now, it looks like I do as well selling ~1000-2000 books online as I do with a first book contract from a major publisher. This is going to affect how I negotiate with a publisher, because the publisher will only enter into negotiations if they think they can sell tens of thousands of copies of my manuscript. Could I make some of those sales myself and skip the publisher? That’s something to consider in negotiating a contract.

    Finally, I would say that, (again, based on deductive logic), if publishers are not going to go away and the contracts they are offering will not attract new writers, then logically we should conclude that contracts will continue to change until new contract models emerge that will keep both publishers and authors in business with each other.

    I don’t share your faith that big publishers will continue to exist, but I do hope you’re right.

    1. Heteromeles, seriously. You have no idea how big publishing actually is. And that’s important. McGraw Hill last year had more revenue than some states. And that’s just one relatively small Big Publishing company.

      As for book contracts, it’s clear you don’t understand them. They’re 10 to 40 pages long and each line is important. Your suggestions are meaningless. There has to be an end date for a contract to be valid. It’s that simple. So “in print” must be defined. It may include web sales, but those web sales will be defined. Out of print will be when the web sales drop below a certain number. Or some authors may negotiate an end date to the contract. I just signed a contract with a foreign publisher that obligated them to 1500 print copies only. If the book sells more than 1500 print copies, we negotiate a new contract no matter what electronic sales are doing. Every contract for every book is different.

      I’m worried that writers will sign bad contracts and won’t walk away. That’s my worry. The contracts offered–and signed–by new writers that I’ve seen in the past year are often egregious. But the new writers signed them. That’s their problem. They just don’t know it yet. They’re so happy to have a deal. The terms I listed above were all cited as dealbreakers for a publisher. The writer would have to walk away to get different terms. The writers should have walked away. But they did not. That’s what I’m saying. Not that all contracts are bad or that if you do this one thing, you’ll negate the bad terms of all contracts. That’s impossible. Every contract is different.

      Once again, contracts are different for every single book. They’re different for every single author. James Patterson gets different contract terms than Nora Roberts who gets different contract terms than Stephen King. They, in turn, get different contract terms than I do. I get different contract terms from different publishers, and different contract terms from the same publisher for different pen names. To discuss contracts like they’re one size fits all is wrong. Please get yourself a copy of the Copyright Handbook, and then look at the parts of the Freelancer’s Guide on contracts and negotiation. You need to learn this stuff and it’s clear you don’t have the most basic grasp of it.

      And as for “existing talent,” again, you don’t understand publishing. Until you’re making the company millions, the company will be happy to piss you off. There will always be some other writer waiting in the wings. And while you’re right: writers don’t live forever, but books can. Little Women is still in print after 160 years. Mark Twain’s books are all still in print. The nice thing about those books, from the publisher’s point of view, is that there are no author costs at all. Dead authors are “collaborating” with new authors. Hell, a publishing house can hire writers to produce material as work-made-for-hire, like the Hollywood studios do, pay a flat fee, and slap a house name (a publishing-house owned pen name) on the book that will then go on throughout the decades. You’re looking at publishing through a small prism–that of your own experience. It’s a multinational multibillion dollar industry. TV and movies haven’t disappeared because of YouTube. Publishing won’t disappear either.

      I will discuss what beginners can do on the indie level in future posts, as well as the future of the business side and what beginning writers need to do. Most of them need to do what I’ve told you, above. They need to learn about the industry they’re working in, not just from the prism of their own experience, but from the reality of the business itself. In all of its facets. And then they need to learn contracts and copyright and how to manage a small business.

      As John mentioned below, I’ve already written a book on how to manage a small business. (Thanks, John!) It’s called The Freelancer’s Survival Guide. If you don’t know how business operates, that book is a good place to start.

    1. I did see that, Livia. I have no idea how they’ll accurately calculate it considering all the different existing e-bookstores. It’ll be strange. Did you also see that Amanda Hocking has been on the Kindle top seller list (paid) in spot #5 for the entire week?

  14. Wow, nice post. Thank you!

    As an aspiring author, I don’t see how publishers can sustain this model either, quite honestly.

    My (ignorant) analysis is that publishers using this model will gather a shrinking pool of new authors, mostly the naive ones, and they will find occasional best-sellers within this pool.

    This will work until the ePublishers get some monster best sellers of their own. At which point, what will the traditional publishers have to sell? If you can get monster best-sellerdom by selling direct to Amazon and/or Apple, it’s not clear that the publishers are offering any service that’s worth paying for.

    Another break-point is when a publisher using this model goes out of business, and strands all their authors in limbo while investors buy their back lists and have no idea what to do with them. Once this has trashed a few authors’ back-lists, even fewer authors will want to sell to publishers.

    There’s a third breaking point: earnings. As an example, I could earn about $1.50 selling a book on CreateSpace. I can get $1500 as a new author selling that book to a publisher. Hmmm. Can I sell 1,000 copies of my new book on CreateSpace? Yes. How many does the publisher need to sell again for that $1500? 50,000? Right. So anywhere between 1,000 and 50,000, I’m making more money by doing it myself. That’s a good spot for a newbie to be in, especially one growing an audience. For a publisher, this is a risk. For an author, it’s simple growing pains.

    Finally, I think there’s another bit of advice you forgot: New authors should always use a pseudonym. There’s two reasons:
    1. If publishers are claiming some right to your authorial name and trying to hold this right in perpetuity, you should not use your real name. That way, when they dump you, you can shed that name like a lizard sheds its tail, and for much the same reason.

    2. As an aspiring writer, you’re going to need a day job. Many big corporations have fairly totalitarian intellectual property rights rules, such as assertions that they own all of your creative output. It’s possible to negotiate a waiver on this rule (I have), but if you’ve got a big publisher saying they have a say on what you do under your own name, your employer is simply not going to let you publish your book.

    The simplest way to deal with this is to negotiate a waiver on the intellectual property claim of your employer (this should be possible unless writing fiction is part of your job description), and never use your real name when selling to a publisher, to avoid any conflict over rights.

    1. Heteromeles,

      Once again, let me state for the record: Traditional Publishing will not go away. Not ever and certainly not because it will “run out” of new writers. Honestly, traditional publishing would like nothing more than to never ever publish a new writer again. Because new writers aren’t known quantities. Known quantities sell. Please go back and read my posts about Big Publishing, and seriously, try to get the scale of these businesses in your head. Because it’s clearly not there at the moment.

      Your comments on the problems of intellectual property and your employer are spot on and every writer who works for a large corporation should know that corporation’s intellectual property policies and how they apply to product that the writer produces at home. Also, writers who work in professions where confidentiality is important should probably use a pen name just to avoid nuisance lawsuits.

      But…your comments on contracts are also dead wrong.

      First of all, a contract cannot exist in perpetuity. Nothing can be signed away “forever.” To be a valid contract, the contract must have a limitation, an end date. In publishing, that end date is usually tied to the book’s in-print status, although not always. For example, the contract will expire after the book has been out of print for three years. This will be stated in the contract. The writer must then ask for a rights reversion, which in the past, publishers were happy to give. Now they will–if they can–put the book back into print. That’s not always a bad thing, because if the book is in print, readers can find it. Bestselling novels are often in print for decades so the contract is in force for decades. Got that?

      Secondly, no one forces a writer to sign a bad contract. Got that? The writer choses to sign that contract. So if the writer signs away the legal use of his own name, that writer is really really really dumb. I don’t know of any contract from any legitimate publisher that will ask the writer to do so.

      What I was mentioning above comes in the “future works” part of the contract. Often a contract will try to limit the writer’s future works, stating that the writer cannot work on any other project while this one is being written for the publisher or that the writer cannot publish any “competing” works under the same name (or in some cases, under any name). Here we get into the differences between contracts and every contract for every book is different. Writers will often sign contracts that limit the work they can do or the use of their name on books, and honestly, that’s the writer’s problem. The writer did not negotiate a better deal.

      I used the word “dealbreaker” on purpose. At some point, the publisher will say “take this contract or leave it.” If the contract has egregious terms, the writer should walk away and not sign the contract. The problem is so many beginning writers don’t do that. They’re too eager to be published. That’s the writer’s fault, not the publisher’s. The writer should have dealbreaker contract terms as well.

      I walked away from several contracts over the years (and had an agent quit on me because I did because he had “negotiated” that contract and I was hurting his stupid reputation. Well, said contract would have hurt my career. Guess who isn’t my agent any more?). I have never regretted walking away. I have always gotten a better deal from another publisher on the project, although it might have taken years.

      So please stop thinking of publishing contracts as something monolithic and always egregious. A contract is a negotiation. Once you sign it, then you’re responsible for the terms you agreed to. If you don’t like the terms, don’t sign. It’s that simple.

  15. Love this, Kris. The interesting thing is I can see my need for validation coming from sending out my manuscripts and getting an offer from a major New York publishing house, negotiating the hell out of it (with the help of literary attorney), and either getting something I could live with or walking away from the table. Which I’m not sure, before e-publishing raised all its beautiful possibilities, would ever have been an emotionally realistic option for me before.

  16. Kris,
    Thanks for the post. One of the best ways to learn more about business is “The Freelancer’s Survival Guide”, which perfectly complements these recent posts. I have been re-reading and savoring the advice in my new fresh print copy. Just today I read the chapters on contracts and negotiations and it went right along with the above post.

    I think one dilemma new writers have is how to publicise self-published efforts. That might tempt them to want to go traditional, where at least some publicity mechanism is in place. It’s actually been a concern of mine recently – not so much whether to go the New York route or not, but more how rise out of obscurity. Now, you and Dean have both mentioned elsewhere that it takes time, and that’s true of course. I just checked my stats on Amazon today and I found out that slowly slowly my stories have started selling. But how can we expedite the process? I’d love to hear some advice about that.

    One idea I had that does not involve the permanent signing over of rights is to publish with the traditional short story markets. They are tough nuts to crack for new writers too, but they put your name out there in the speculative fiction world, and after a short period of time all the rights are yours again. You can build up a readership that way who could then head for your self-published novels and story collections and individual story reprints. That’s the route I’ve been going recently, anyway. Still at the beginning stages but struggling valiantly.

    1. I love your suggestion, John, about traditional short story markets. It’s a marvelous solution for validation and it’s a great way to market yourself to a new audience. That audience will look for your novels.

      Good point about negotiating and walking away, Terry. And about validation. I think that’s something writers will be discussing for quite a few years.

  17. Thanks for the reply, Kris. Can’t wait to read your solutions to breaking through the noise.

    I have to say that you and Dean are doing a tremendous service to writers. I’ve read every post on Dean’s blog and he’s helped me get past a lot of myths. But the one I’m struggling with now is the marketing/promotion myth. That’s what EVERYONE says you gotta do. When I finally started listening to Dean about following Heinlein’s rules and everything else he has to say, I was so fed up with the way my own writing had been going I was ready to do anything. And thanks to him, EVERYTHING CHANGED for the better.

    I just gotta reach down inside and find the discipline I need to accept what you two are saying about promotion, marketing, and breaking through the noise. (Of course I’m assuming you and Dean are pretty much on the same page here. Just write. That’s it.

    When I was submitting like crazy last year I used to tell myself, SUBMIT AND FORGET as a way to keep me focused on the next story. Now that I’m epublishing everything, I haven’t thought of a catchy phrase. But I it still applies, I suppose.

    1. Jeff, Publish and Forget. Move onto the next book. There’s your phrase(s).

      Glad to help, Cindie. And seriously, I can’t wait for that book. Finish it, please!

  18. Thanks for this post! It’s having a funny impact on me. I’ve got two voices in my head — one is saying to scrap my plans for what I hope to be my first published book and just do it myself. The other voice is yours saying that I need to finish the damn book before I make any plans whatsoever. If I’m going to be hearing voices, I’m glad it’s yours. It made my instant panic at reading this post ebb away much more quickly than usual!

  19. I’ve been following several blogs over the past year and half or two — yours and Dean’s, Konrath’s, Stackpole’s, Jim Hines’, a few others. It’s very nice to get the range of ideas, observations, suggestions, etc. about electronic publishing. I like it that I’ve found several different perspectives, so that I have (I hope)as balanced a perspective as possible on the state of electronic publishing.

    I’ve especially appreciated the business-based posts by you and Dean. Very straight forward, with lots of experience to back up what you say, and very common sense suggestions.

    As a beginning writer, I’ve enjoyed reading all the other writing posts, but I’m very happy to dig into the beginning writer series. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your ideas, observations and experience. I look back a few years and think how grateful I am to be starting on this journey NOW, rather than THEN; now at least I feel like I have a reasonable road map to consult. ;=)

  20. A number of you wrote to let me know there was some kind of malfunction with the donation button. The button is fixed now. Thanks for writing and for donating! –Kris

  21. Kris, great post–and nails the points in contention right now. Up to one or two years ago, trad publishing was still the way to go, especially in a lucrative field like romance, for the beginning writer. Sure, the grumbles about low advances and industry discussions about what is basket accounting increased, but it was still accepted that for the big bucks and the first step to the midlist career or shot at big bestsellerdom after midlist career was trad publishing.

    Then up to 6-12 months ago, it made sense to load up both barrels of the writerly shotgun: do both trad and e(self)publishing. It will now be up to each writer to do the math and research on whether a trad deal and traditionally built career will enhance or hurt their long term income.

    Now? I think a lot of savvy would’ve-been debut authors are going to take a look at the math on epublishing themselves versus traditional publishing, at least until and unless they hit bestseller levels (as with Konrath). It just doesn’t make financial sense for them to do so at the time (such as big bills to pay off all of a sudden) unless they are getting a killer deal for work they could pay for or do themselves and keep the lion’s share of the long-run income.

    Even at bestseller levels some will take a pass on publisher deals, in exchange for the steady income and perhaps building their own brand, unless we’re talking JK Rowling levels. It’s just changed that fast, because the publishing terms (Amazon royalties, for one) have changed that fast, and it makes it viable or writers to go directly to readers via ONE gate (whether it’s Amazon, an epub company, an author’s own website, or an author collective publishing company).

    Of course there will be the scammers that pop up, some under the guise of quasi-legitimacy as with the increased financial motivation for agents to act as packagers/publishers (and the lazy/ignorant writers who will let them take the money this way), and future fights over censorship of content, delivery costs and cataloging of epubbed books (Amazon, B&N) once epubs become more dominant, but for those willing to learn the new business of writing, while keeping in mind the old lessons (whether pulp, trad publishing’s heydey, and more), it’s a pretty exciting time.

    Thank you and Dean for writing about and following this area! It helps enormously to have the seasoned long-term pro’s POV on these issues. Can’t wait to read the upcoming installments.

  22. I’ve been trying to finish up the first novel I’ve ever seriously debated publishing. The entire time I’ve been watching the publishing world change through your posts, Dean’s posts, and a number of other sources.

    When I started the book, I figured I’d send it to all the big publishers in the genre. Then, somewhere in May or June last year, I started hearing really crazy numbers from various “indie” authors, and through the year, they only got crazier.

    A month ago, I finally decided I’d follow Dean’s model: self-publish it as an eBook/POD while at the same time sending it out to publishers.

    Now, after reading this and Dean’s latest post today, I have to wonder why I would bother sending it to agents and publishers. It seems that anything I write that a publisher would publish, is likely to generate just as much income self-published, if not more. I’d also be free of draconian contract clauses that frankly bother me.

  23. Wow…another amazing post. Thank you!

    As I read your post, I realized the adage “know thyself” is more important than ever for writers. It’s always been vital for writers to know their strengths and weaknesses, both in business and in craft. Now, an honest assessment can not just strengthen your writing career but point you in the direction you need to take.

    There’s never been a fail-safe road for writers to follow to success…we’ve always had to make our own way. But the road until relatively recently ran through NYC. Now there are many, largely uncharted, roads, with their own dangers and opportunities.

    I’d advise any writer to hone their craft, learn the business side, and develop contacts in the publishing industry. But on top of that, I’d stress the importance of understanding both the self-pub and the NY pub side of things. They can work in tandem, even for the new writer starting out.

    Thanks again for these wonderful posts!

  24. Great post, Kris. I’m starting to think that newer writers should operate based on a simple maxim: the writer who retains more control of their work and their career — whether it has to do with agents or publishers — is almost always going to be better off in the long run than the writer who cedes that control away. A newer writer can always change a cover, rewrite a blurb, try something different with a book so long as they have control of it. Without that control? They’re a bystander. And like you said, I’m just assuming that I’ll never get the rights back to any book I sell to a major publisher now.

    Maybe this maxim has always been true, but it really does seem like the pitfalls are greater now giving that control to others.

    I don’t know. The only thing NY offers me right now is audience size — jamming more readers into a book in a shorter time frame — but I’m not sure how much longer they’re even going to be able to offer that.

    Thanks for taking this on, despite the reluctance. The problem is you’re also dealing with people’s dreams, and if a new writer’s dream is to be published by a major publisher, they’re going to do it despite the pitfalls. So I guess my advice to new writers is: if that’s your dream, fine, just make sure you limit the damage as much as possible.

  25. I’ve been plotting your trajectory – bestseller to midlist means soon we’ll hear about beginning writers! – and eagerly anticipating these posts. As I’ve read your posts and Dean’s, I’ve wanted to piece together a strategy for a beginning writer who wants to move from hobbyist to a more professional published presence. (Besides, you know, write, finish what you write, send it to someone who will pay for it…) This will be very helpful, thanks.

  26. Hi Kris,

    Thanks for these posts. They are a BIG eye-opener. I’m truly enjoying them.

    I wonder if you could talk about media-related books and how a beginning writer should think about them.

    Here’s my situation and thoughts on the matter.

    I’ve made 2011 the year I go indie. I’m not averse to traditional publishing the way some indie writers are. But things in epublishing are moving so fast I wanted to get a number of products up in my magic bakery as soon as possible. My goal is 52 individual titles (shorts, collections, novels) in 2011. At the end of the year, I’ll see where I’m at and devise a strategy for 2012. The only caveat is that I’m sending my novels to traditional publishers as well as epublishing them.

    However, I recognize that, other than just lousy writing (and perhaps a really, really bad cover), obscurity is my worst enemy. I think Cory Doctorow said that. Which got me thinking about how I might become better know. After a month of social media (I’m darkelms on Twitter, by the way) I’m realizing that the results are not equal to the time spent. But maybe I’m wrong on that. Anyway, it occurred to me that, being a long-time D&D lover maybe I should submit a sample of my fantasy work to Wizards and see what happens. If I get hired to write a story or book, it puts my name out there to a mass audience, which is a good thing.

    Now my understanding of media fiction is (a) the work is not yours, but own by the company and (b) you tend to get a flat fee and that’s it. Thus, what you’re saying about rights and reversal clauses above don’t really apply with a media contract. Or do they?

    Thanks so much again for these post. Very, very helpful.

    Best regards.

  27. You have no idea how excited this post makes me. I suppose it should make me sad, stressed, worried, or whatever since it seems like my chances at getting recognized by the publishing world are slim to none, but I’m not in the writing business for approval. I’m in it to tell people stories and to make money doing so.

    I have self-employed experience, patience, and total confidence in my writing. Let the changes (and your awesome posts) come!

    1. Let me see how I can answer all of these fine comments. First, thanks to everyone for the good words! That keeps me going more than I can say.

      Now, Jeff, don’t do media. Lots of work for little return. Contracts there are exactly what you say nowadays. Media books used to pay royalties. Almost none do any longer. And most people buy the media book for the media, and never look at the author. As for your ideas on promotion and Cory’s silly quote, well…we’ll discuss that in a future post. Let’s just say I used to worry about “the noise” but I don’t any more. And I have some solutions, which mostly involve writing the next book–of your own!

      Scott, good post. Your maxim has always been true. But it was easier for writers to ignore it as recently as five years ago. Dean and I would have to drag writers kicking and screaming to business classes, and even then, writers rarely learned or listened. They could still make a living and still have careers, but they would get screwed and bitter. Now you won’t be able to have a career if you don’t learn business. You will, however, still be able to be published once in a while. But that’s it.

      Michele, I love your “know thyself” post. You’re exactly right. And you have to be willing to look at the long term as well as the short term. What are you willing to lose from these various methods of publishing (because each will involve a loss) and what will you gain from that loss, not just now, but over time. Important questions that beginning writers, in their quest for publication, often forget to ask.

      Mark & Sam, great comments as well. Some writers don’t write for money, though, so bigger chunks of the pie matter less to them than, say, being “legitimized” by their favorite publisher. We’ll see how things shake out for them. Writers who want to make money and a lot of it are probably not going to do that well in New York any longer.

      Thanks, everyone, for the thoughtful comments. What a nice thing to log onto this morning.

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